Chomsky On The Origins of Neoliberalism

Chomsky, when it comes to systematic anarchist writing, has always viewed himself as a “derivative fellow traveller,” and he has provided us with sketches, rather than complete works, regarding anarchism in essays, interviews and talks.

Some argue that his libertarian socialism, which he argues in the video linked below (my favourite interview of his on these topics) can be construed as anarcho-syndicalism or anarcho-communism (within the organised anarchist movement there are some differences between the two, unfortunately, and so far as I can see Chomsky straddles both positions), has followed on from his rationalist approach to language and mind. For instance, Alison Edgley has argued this in her book on Chomsky’s social thought.

Chomsky himself has always rejected this view, arguing that there are intellectual connections between the two, but they are tenuous and suggestive. Historically, his political commitments preceded his scientific and philosophical commitments. I think Chomsky explores the two at greatest depth in his Russell lectures published as Problems of Knowledge and Freedom.

I myself tend toward Chomsky’s position on this matter, but one connection I have perceived, I don’t know what he would say about this, is that a lot of his political writings, which have for the most part been critical reflections on current affairs, have an anarchist aspect to them lying beneath the surface as it were.

Take, say, his position on the cold war. Chomsky’s view of the cold war is that there was a fair degree of cooperation between the Soviet Union and the United States during the cold war, with both power systems primarily concerned with maintaining order and stability within their spheres of influence and domination. This task was made easier through the herding of their respective subjects under the cover, or pretext, of external threats posed by the other side. That’s a very anarchist way of thinking about the cold war and of international relations more broadly.
Ultimately, the greatest cleavage in international relations is that between states, and the power systems they construct, manage and ally with on the one hand and people, whom they marshal and control, on the other.

This cleavage is revealed at those moments when the masses rise up across borders.

For instance, in the late 1960s, especially 1968, there were uprisings and much ferment the world over. In the US, Europe, in the Soviet bloc (i.e. socialism with a human face and the Prague Spring), the red guards getting out of Mao’s control in China, massacre of students in Mexico and so on the elites where confronted with popular discontent and mobilisations. The policy of détente, that is a policy of easing great power tensions, which began in the late 1960s, was a type elite coordination to manage these uprisings as popular concern with the costs and dangers of the cold war itself helped to fuel these uprisings. This is an argument that Jeremi Suri makes in his excellent book on détente.

When you think about it that’s a pretty anarchist way of thinking about détente and international relations in the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s.

Why do I say all this? Because Chomsky has an interesting take on the origins of neoliberalism, which I have also argued for, namely that neoliberalism was a conservative reaction against the uprisings of the late 1960s. I also have argued for this within the context of a narrow institutional framework, namely the university. You can see this position in an interview Chomsky recently gave. He states,

As a result of the activism of the 1960s and the militancy of labor, there was a falling rate of profit. That’s not acceptable. so we have to reverse the falling rate of profit, we have to undermine democratic participation. What comes? Neoliberalism, which has exactly those effects.

Neoliberalism is a response by power systems to the uprisings of the 1060s and 1970s which threatened to extend democracy through society, and the counter-revolution, neoliberalism, was expressly designed as an attack on democracy to meet this threat. Neoliberalism, then, has much to do with power.

That’s a pretty anarchist way of thinking about the origins of neoliberalism. Marxists argue, and many anarchists follow them in this, essentially on grounds of historical materialism, that neoliberalism is just an evolution in the underlying mechanics of capitalism. Anarchists, not all by no means, have been quite critical of historical materialism, arguing that what matters in the social and political domain is power not underlying law like processes occurring in the economic domain.

Bertrand Russell also argued against Marxism, that is against the underlying theory, on similar grounds and he too emphasised power.

The best known anarchist critique of historical materialism is due to Rudy Rocker in his Nationalism and Culture, which he considered his best work. There he states,

It is the fundamental error of this theory that it puts the causes of social phenomena on a par with the causes of mechanistic events in nature. Science concerns itself exclusively with the phenomena which are displayed in the great frame which we call Nature, which are consequently limited by space and time and amenable to the calculations of human thought. For the realm of nature is a world of inner connections and mechanical necessities where every event occurs according to the laws of cause and effect…

…It was this very manifestation of an iron law in the eternal course of cosmic and physical events which gave many a keen brain the idea that the events of human social life were subject to the same iron necessity and could consequently be calculated and explained by scientific methods. Most historical theories have root in this erroneous concept, which could find a place in man’s mind only because he put the laws of physical being on a par with the aims and ends of men, which can only be regarded as results of their thinking.

Surely Rocker was correct in saying this. Anarchists are quite sceptical of positivism, no accident given that non anarchist strains of socialist thought trace their origins to Saint Simon, an early follower of Comte and an authoritarian socialist, whereas modern anarchism traces its origins to Fourier, a contemporary and critic of Saint Simon, who by contrast adopted a libertarian socialism.

You can see how through stressing power Chomsky adopts a conception of the origins of neoliberalism quite consistent with anarchist thought. Of course, he also emphasises the falling rate of profit, a key concept underpinning Marxist accounts of the origins of neoliberalism. Most attribute this view to the Marxist geographer David Harvey, but it is the French scholars Dumenil and Levy who have articulated it with the greater depth.

The falling rate of profit is important, but that does not imply that the rate of profit fell for Marx’s reasons. There is more to be said regarding neoliberalism and corporate profits, but I will leave that aside.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that there are Marxists, such as council communists and autonomous Marxists, that adopt a form of libertarian socialism at variance with authoritarian strands of socialist thought such as Leninism. They refuse to worship at the altar of the state, the party, the Church and so on just like anarchists. They do, however, worship St Marx.

If you refuse to worship even him, then rejoice you’re an anarchist.